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Dan Shaughnessy

Not a bad place to start

By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / September 12, 2008
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FOXBOROUGH - This is a lesson for your son or daughter who maybe is not good enough to start on his or her high school soccer team.

Riding the bench? Don't worry about it, kid. Don't let it define you. Keep working and someday maybe they'll let you play.

Matt Cassel will start at quarterback for the New England Patriots Sunday. Eight months ago, the Patriots were regarded as the greatest team in the history of football and now their quarterback is a young man who never started a game in college. Oh, and just for good measure, the quarterback of the other team will be Brett Favre, one of the top 10 quarterbacks who ever lived.

Matt Cassel. The last time he started a football game was Nov. 24, 1999, when he quarterbacked Chatsworth High to a 49-42 loss to Palisades Charter High School in the third round of the Los Angeles City Invitational playoffs.

He is no ordinary bench-warmer/clipboard-carrier. Cassel's dearth of experience is owed to the people playing ahead of him more than his ability. Imagine trying out for the college debate team and discovering that Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt are already on the squad. Or maybe you run the 100 and you've got to beat Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay to represent your school. That's Matt Cassel.

Competitive sports represent the ultimate meritocracy. The best players move up to the next level. Every kid on a college scholarship was dominant in high school. Just about every kid in the pros was dominant in college.

Not Cassel. At Southern Cal, he played behind Carson Palmer, a Heisman Trophy winner. When Palmer went off to the pros, Cassel was passed over in favor of Matt Leinart. Leinart also went on to win the Heisman.

"I came in behind Carson," Cassel said yesterday when a couple dozen reporters surrounded his locker. "Carson obviously did very well in college and was the Heisman Trophy winner. Matt came in the year after I did and the coaches just decided to go that way. It's one of those things where you can't really look back and do the 'what if?' thing, but I definitely anticipated being a starter there and it didn't happen. At the same time, I ended up here now, so it all worked out."

Despite never starting, Cassel got drafted by the Super Bowl champions in the seventh round in 2005. Based on potential.

"I was pretty surprised," he said. "I'm not going to lie. Without as much college film, a lot of people have written me off already, and when the Patriots called I was pretty happy. It was a good day."

Cassel came to New England with no expectations of starting. This time, instead of playing behind a Heisman winner, he was backing up a three-time Super Bowl champ.

For the next three seasons, while Brady was winning games and adding to the third-longest ironman streak for quarterbacks in the NFL (128 games), Cassel was learning the system, getting the attention of Bill Belichick and staff. His apprenticeship was not without discouragement. He threw only 39 passes in three seasons and was yanked off the field after throwing an interception in mop-up duty against the Dolphins last season.

In the summer of 2008, there was some doubt he was still Coach Bill's choice as Brady's backup, but he did well enough in four exhibitions to keep his job. And then he got the call in the first quarter of Game 1. Now he is the starter. Just like that.

"For me, it's just go and play ball and try to have fun and realize it's a game," said Cassel. "Not watch a lot of TV and not read the papers and just go out there and study the game plan and focus on what I need to do when it comes to football. There's going to be a lot of outside distractions. There's going to be a lot of people that want your time right now. I need to focus on what's important and that's to help this team win. We're going down to the Jets not just to play well, we're going down there to win."

What was it like being an understudy all those years after being The Man in high school?

"It really hasn't been that big of a struggle for me," he said. "It's just go in and get your work done and get ready when that opportunity comes, and it's here now. Did I think that it was going to take as long as it did? No, but I had a great education at USC. I had a great experience there and then I came here and I've learned behind the best for the last four years. All in all, it's not that bad.

"You fall into that role and continue to work hard and you learn a lot from these different quarterbacks. From Carson, from Leinart, and from Tom, especially over these last four years, and you start to take little bits and pieces from each of their games and use that in your game and try to get better."

The Patriots believe the system is bigger than any player and that is why Cassel is the QB rather than an experienced backup from the NFL scrap heap. Belichick would rather have a young man who knows the playbook. The coaches will do the rest. They will put him in position to succeed. He will be asked to manage the game. He will not be asked to be Tom Brady.

"He knows us, and he knows our philosophy and he knows our playbook just as good as Tom does," said running back Laurence Maroney.

"I don't really like to make comparisons between myself and Tom," said Cassel. "Tom is who he is and he's the MVP of the league last year. I am who I am. I'm just going to go out and play my game and whatever that might be, we'll see come Sunday . . . If the coaching staff didn't believe I could execute the offense, I wouldn't be here right now. You have to rally and close ranks and move on. We'd all love for Tom to be here right now. Unfortunately, he's not and we've got to move on as a team and get ready for this week."

Against the Jets. Against Brett Favre. In the Meadowlands. His first start of the 21st century.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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